Deep River: Slavery, Empire, and Emancipation in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, 1730-1860
Heerman, Matthew Scott
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"Deep River" offers a continental perspective on human bondage and emancipation in mainland North America. It unearths the deep history of indigenous and African slavery in the upper Mississippi River Valley and traces its connections outward toward the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. "Deep River" argues for a new spatial frame for the history of slavery and freedom to understand how colonial experiences in the upper Mississippi River Valley shaped the trajectory of emancipation in the United States. It also offers new perspectives on the history of emancipation by exposing free and enslaved black agency to eradicate slavery from Illinois. "Deep River" moves past legal categories as an organizing framework for slave and free societies. It demonstrates that inheritable bondage long survived its legal abolition. Displacing laws as the engine of change, it argues the collaborations between free black migrants, fugitive slaves, and white anti-slavery activists drove the processes of emancipation forward. Free and fugitive migrants into Illinois settled in black freedom villages which afforded slaves limited access to capital, avenues toward finding attorneys, and support in legal proceedings. In this way, Illinois's movement to a free society sprang from domestic migrations and a longer colonial legacy of trade and settlement in the Mississippi Valley, not laws and statutes passed by the United States. By focusing on the ways in which black northern migration and litigation in local courts shaped emancipation in the state, "Deep River" illuminates how legal and political development in Illinois followed the paths that enslaved African Americans created.